RIO DE JANEIRO – A year ago, as fires engulfed the Amazon, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted to criticism from abroad with indignation.
“The Amazon is ours,” he said, arguing that the fate of the rainforest was for his country to decide.
Much has changed in a year.
Under pressure from European governments, foreign investors and Brazilian companies concerned about the country’s reputation, Bolsonaro has banned forest fires for the four months of the dry season and set up a military operation against deforestation.
The new stance represents a notable turnaround by a government that has drawn widespread global condemnation over its environmental policies.
Environmentalists, experts and foreign officials who have pressed Brazil on conservation matters are skeptical of the government’s commitment, afraid these actions amount to little more than damage control at a time when the economy is in deep trouble.
Bolsonaro and many of his political allies have long favored opening the Amazon to miners, farmers and loggers, and his government has openly worked to undermine the land rights of Indigenous communities. Deforestation has spiked under his tenure.
But as the political and business costs of policies that prioritize exploration over conservation escalate, some activists see an opportunity to slow, or even reverse, that trend by promoting private sector support for greener policies.
“Brazil is becoming an environmental pariah on the global stage, destroying a positive reputation that took decades to build,” said Sueley Araújo, a veteran environmental policy expert who was dismissed as the head of the country’s main environmental protection agency soon after Bolsonaro took office.
Brazil’s worsening reputation on the environment has also put in jeopardy two important foreign policy goals: The implementation of a trade deal with the European Union and its ambition to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 37-country group. Both deals require Brazil to meet baseline standards on labor and environmental policies.
A striking sign of the potential economic damage to Brazil’s interests came in late June, when more than two dozen financial institutions that collectively control some $3.7 billion in assets warned the Brazilian government in a letter that investors were steering away from countries that are accelerating the degradation of ecosystems.
The message has clearly registered within Brazil. The country’s three largest banks announced this past week a joint effort to press for and fund sustainable development projects in the Amazon.
And a group of former Brazilian finance ministers and central bank presidents argued in a statement in July that the best way to jump-start the economy is by investing in greener technologies, ending fuel subsidies and drastically reducing deforestation.
But the clearest sign of the shifting politics on the issue lies in the fate of Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s environment minister, who is fighting for his political survival amid criticism of Brazil’s growing deforestation.
Salles, the face of the Bolsonaro administration’s efforts to weaken environmental protections, was expelled from his party in May over his ministry leadership. He is also facing a legal complaint from federal prosecutors who are seeking his removal, arguing that Salles’ actions in office amounted to a dereliction of duty.
Brazilian leaders have often bristled at foreign-led campaigns to save the rainforest, regarding such efforts as an underhanded way to hinder the economic potential of the vast nation, which is a leading exporter of food and other commodities.
In July 2019, Bolsonaro told a round table of international journalists that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon should concern Brazil alone.
“The Amazon is ours,” he snapped.
The next month, in early August, Bolsonaro fired the head of the government agency that tracks deforestation trends, and Salles raised doubts about his own government’s data, which showed a clear rise in destruction of the forest.
Later that month, world leaders, celebrities and people on social media reacted with horror as photos and videos of an unusually intense fire season in the Amazon went viral. Such fires are intentionally set in July and August to clear land for cattle grazing and to plant crops, but several last year, which was unusually dry, raged out of control.
Bolsonaro sparred with French President Emmanuel Macron after the European leader drew attention to the fires by asserting that “our house is burning. Literally.”
Since then, experts say, deforestation has continued to increased as the government has hobbled its environmental protection agencies, allowing illegal miners and loggers to go deeper into the Amazon with broad impunity.
During the first six months of this year, loggers razed approximately 1,184 square miles of the Amazon, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. That area — slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island — is 25% larger than the forest cover lost during the same time period in 2019.
Environmental experts say the military operation to curb deforestation, which includes more than 3,600 troops and law enforcement agents, will at best make a dent in deforestation and fire trends this year. To fundamentally reverse them, they say the government would need to make sweeping changes to bolster the staffing level, tools and political backing of the environmental protection agencies.
The association of government environmental protection agents and federal prosecutors say that Salles is largely responsible for the rise in deforestation during the Bolsonaro administration.
On his watch, they asserted in separate statements issued recently, career specialists have lost tools and autonomy. Career law enforcement agents at the main environmental agencies were demoted or dismissed earlier this year after operations against land invaders that drew a political backlash.
Criticism of Salles reached a boiling point in May following the release of a video recording of a Cabinet meeting during which he said the coronavirus pandemic had created an opportune distraction to make headway on environmental deregulation without drawing much scrutiny from the press.
In a 126-page complaint filed in early July, federal prosecutors accused Salles of spending money inefficiently, retaliating against effective enforcement agents and issuing the fewest fines for environmental crimes in 20 years, even as invasion of protected lands surged.
“The destruction of the system of Brazil’s environmental protection system was the result of the acts, omissions and statements by the accused,” federal prosecutors wrote in their complaint, which seeks to prevent Salles from occupying public office.
Salles called the allegations baseless and accused prosecutors of meddling in executive branch policies.